The apostle Matthias is a source of joy to Christian hearts. It would have been depressing if the noble group of the twelve apostles had ended with the criminal face of Judas. Instead, this gentle and venerable old man closed the ranks of the Twelve. Attention is instinctively turned away from the wretched Judas and directed toward this last, good apostle.
Matthias was mentioned only once in the entire New Testament: the resplendent hour when he was chosen as an apostle. This fleeting hour came out of the darkness, remained for a time in the light, and sank again into obscurity. The usually loquacious apocryphal works remained almost completely silent, knowing and offering little about him.
The compilier, or better, the author of various legends concerning Matthias was a monk who worked during the twelfth century in a monastery in Trier, in the Rhineland of Germany. He must have breathed a sigh of relief after he had applied himself so industriously and painstakingly in seeking out the deed of this apostle. And in his own way, he managed to surmount many encountered difficulties, which will be noted later on. The short passage concerning the selection of Matthias as an apostle, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is, despite its brevity, full of allusions to the personality and position of this apostle. And from this it is possible to assemble a distinct picture.
Matthias before the Drawing of Lots
The election of Matthias was overshadowed by the distress and indignation occasioned by the vile act of the betrayal by Judas. More than forty days had passed since the unforgetable events of the first Holy Week. The apostles were still dazzled, first from the terrifying horror of their Master's sufferings and death on the cross, and then from the glorious splendor of His Resurrection. There had been Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the death, the burial, the resurrection, their own shame of denial and desertion, and the joy of repentance and forgiveness. And then the apostles had just returned from the scene of the Ascension. Their eyes were still blinded by the magnificent splendor of the open heavens, and they could still hear the last, solemn words of the Lord ringing in their souls:
"you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth."
Although St. Luke had little to say about most of the apostles in the so-called "Acts of the Apostles," he did mention the names of all chosen apostles of the newly founded Christianity in the beginning of his book. It was like a solemn procession from the Ascension as
they mounted to the upper room where they were staying Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas. Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alpheus, and Simon the Zealot, and Jude the brother of James.
One apostle had defected. The good Jude, the brother of James, was no help in removing the memory of the betrayer. It was his name that made them recall the other Judas, the accursed apostle from Kerioth. The traitor was no longer there, but the memory of him weighted on the minds and hearts of all. The glory of the Resurrection and the brightness of the Ascension had not been able to remove the stain and blemish from the circle of the Twelve. It was in this very upper room that the Lord had spoken words so unbelievable that they still could not fully comprehend them: "'One of you will betray me.'" They still imagined they could see the betrayer as he sneaked away along the wall and ran into the night.
Those days were filled with silence, the holy silence before the sudden storm of Pentecost. Again and again Judas was mentioned, and the recurring thought of the betrayal troubled and disturbed them. This thorn had to be removed; this scandal had to be wiped away. Their group was branded, and not until public reconciliation for the betrayal had been made would they be deserving of the coming of the Holy Spirit. There should be another to illuminate the darkness caused by Judas. There should be another to fulfill what Judas failed to do. As soon as the Lord had left them, as soon as they had been placed on their own, even before Pentecost, they had to undertake the urgent business of electing a replacement for Judas. How confused and distressed the betrayer had made the college of apostles!
Peter's discourse, delivered before the election of Matthias, adduced much more than a merely psychological reason for this immediate action:
In those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (now the number of persons met together was about a hundred and twenty), and he said, "Brethren, the Scripture must be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit declared before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of those who arrested Jesus; inasmuch as he had been numbered among us and was alloted his share in this ministry. And he indeed bought a field with the price of his iniquity and, being hanged, burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field came to be called in their language Haceldama, that is, the Field of Blood. For it is written in the book of Psalms, "Let their habitation become desolate and let there be none to dwell in it." And, "His ministry let another take."
The view assumed by Peter in this discourse is quite surprising: the need for selecting another apostle stemmed not so much from the command of the Lord as from a prophecy that had to be fulfilled. Yet Jesus Himself may had applied this passage from the Psalms to Judas during those forty mysterious days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, when "He opened their mind, that they might understand the Scriptures. To the Jewish mind-and the same compelling ground for such as event than the fulfillment of the word of God. The election of another apostle fulfilled what the Holy Spirit Himself and prophesied and what Christ had clearly intended. Twelve, the Lord had chosen as apostles, not thirteen, but twelve. No one belonged to the Chosen People of the Old Testament who had not descended from one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Israel of the New Testament was witnessed, for Christ, in a more spiritual manner by the twelve apostles. "And the wall of the city has twelve foundation stones, and on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb."
St Augustine pointed out the great significance in the fact that there were exactly twelve apostles. He found a profound significance in this number, which was highly esteemed as a holy number at that time: three was the holy number of God; four, of the world, Three plus four and three times four symbolically signified the work of God in the world and with the world. Therefore seven were holy numbers.
The four directions of the world, east and west and north and south were called into the Trinity by baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Peter, however, a simple fisherman, did not propound such lofty and ingenious concepts before the election of Matthias. He only knew of the prophecy in Holy Scripture that, according to the decrees of Providence, a twelfth apostle had to be chosen. The light of Judas had burned out, and it had to be lighted once again. Once again the deserted office of the betrayer should be occupied.
Rubens, a master artist, portrayed Matthias with a meditative and humble demeanor. Many times Matthias may have pondered and reflected on the mystery of his calling to the apostolate. Another apostle had to become an apostate, that he might become an apostle. The dead branch of Judas had to be broken away from the living vine of Christ, that Matthias might be grafted in its place.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-dresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he will take away; and every branch that bears fruit he will cleanse, that it may bear more fruit."
But if some of the branches have been broken off, and if thou, being a wild olive, art grafted in their place, and hast become a partaker of the stem and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches.
Matthias shared in the grace of Judas, and the sin of the traitorous apostle became a blessing for him. This "felix culpa" was advantageous, not for Judas, but for Matthias. What Judas squandered was now entrusted to Matthias; what Judas should have accomplished was now to be completed by Matthias. Matthias humbly bowed his head. He prayed with the astonishing words which his great brother, Paul, who was soon to follow him into the apostolate, had used when, struck down on the way to commit a crime and no longer a stranger, but a friend to the mysterious decrees of Divine Providence, he prayed: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!"
When we are unduly concerned about the mystery of grace, which is taken away from unworthy men, even from an entire nation, and "given to a people yielding its fruits," we can recall St Paul's praise to God, our great and incomprehensible Creator:
How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For "Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? Or who has first given to him, that recompense should be made him?" For from him and through him and unto him are all things. To him be the glory forever.